Buying Kitchen Knives & How to Take Care of Them
Terry S. wrote and asked, "Just renovated the kitchen and need to know what knives I need for a well-stocked kitchen. I have several "good" knives, but don't know if they're good, sharp, or necessary."
Great question for Ask a Chef and I called upon Chef Alan Bickel who is now working at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville, TN. Alan has contributed several times to the site, and his article The "Rest" of the Restaurant is a must-read for everyone, but even more so if you ever thought of attending culinary school.
And remember to check out my How to Choose the Right Kitchen Knives?
Here's what Chef Alan Bickel had to say:
Over the last few years, I've come to appreciate cooks who respect and enjoy the tools they work with. So many times in the world of food, there are things you can skimp by on, whether substituting ingredients to fit your budget or finding a different method of preparation to avoid purchasing costly equipment that only exists in commercial kitchens.
However, a knife is not one of those things. It is, in all actuality, an extension of your hands and the means of delivering a product that someone will see, smell, and taste. So, with my soap box firmly in place, here we go-
First, you need to know that good knives are an investment and will last decades when properly cared for. They are not cheap for a high-end blade, but with a few secondary purchases (I'll get to those later), they will stay razor-sharp and always be ready to give you clean cuts and smart-looking dishes.
My preference in cutlery is the Global knives that Yoshikin, from Japan, manufactured. At around $80-110 each, they're a fine-quality product that looks great and is easily sharpened.
I enjoy Global knives so much because they are made out of steel that is softer and lighter than traditional high-carbon steel, which means a lighter knife in your hand. They also have an edge that stays razor sharp for longer and an easier edge to bring back with a whetstone when they dull.
Many people are more comfortable with the traditional Wushtof or Henkel chef's knives because they have a little more weight to them (which is excellent when you've got a lot of heavy-duty cutting- through bones, crustacean shells, tough cuts of meat). Also, many folks prefer the heft of a solid knife when they cut.
Taking Care of Your Knives
Aside from the knife itself, you NEED a sharpening stone. (or knife sharpener - RG) Most manufacturers make one to suit their knives and are lubricated with either mineral oil or water. If you start a stone using oil, use only oil. And vice versa for water. Switching between the two lubricants can trash a whetstone very quickly. These run about $50-60 but, if properly cared for, will last for several years.
In addition, 'Steel' is essential for maintaining a knife's edge. There are a few types, either Diamond (which attempts to do what the whetstone does, to some extent) for about $100, or regular steel, which you can pick up for around $30.
What the steel does is realign the edge of a knife after use. Think of the edge as a very thin triangle; with the uppermost tip being the edge.
After a while, that point of the triangle will begin to fold to one side. (Mind you, this is on a scale close to microscopic, so don't expect to see your knife's edges bending on the cutting board!)
With both of these tools, you should be careful to follow the user instructions by maintaining the angles described to produce a good finish on the edge of the knife.
Remember to buy a holder for your knives, a magnetic strip for your wall, or a wooden block to insert them into. Not only to protect the edge from getting chipped and ruined but also to protect people's hands and fingers cause you're going to keep them razor-sharp, right?
One final note on proper cutlery care is that you should only use wooden or plastic cutting boards, as marble or glass can severely damage the blade.
So, Which Knives do you Really, Really Need?
Chances are, at home, you're cooking meals for a handful of people a few nights a week. Unless you're trying to start a catering business out of your home kitchen, you can get away with just the essentials.
The first is a chef's knife. It should be sturdy, well-built, and as large as you feel comfortable holding. Disregard ANY cutting product you've seen on T.V. infomercials such as the Miracle Blade or anything by that 'chef Tony' Guy- they're all complete junk.
As I've mentioned, some of the most common brands include Wushtof, Henkel, Global, Mac, Forschner, Calphalon, Shun, and a few others.
Besides the chef's knife, which will be doing about 90% of the work in your kitchen, is the paring knife, for working with smaller fruits, vegetables, and in any instance when you need to work with a small amount of food, or you need precise control of the blade.
Other than that, there is the boning knife, but unless you plan on working with whole fish or sub-primal cuts of beef, you probably won't need one. If you decide to pick one up, however, you should be looking for a bit of flexibility in the blade and a blade that is at least 6" long.
Where To Shop
When shopping in the department store (which is probably one of the last places you should be buying your knives from), folks are caught by fancy knife sets with 847 pieces, including the 'utility knife,' 'tomato knife,' 'tig welder,' 'zebra repellant,' and an infinite number of useless gadgets.
Don't buy sets because you do not need zebra repellant and because many manufacturers will produce a 'second quality' knife to pawn off on consumers who don't know what they're buying.
Would you buy golf clubs from a grocery store? No. So don't buy your knives from the department store. Instead, find a decent cutlery store in your area, such as William Sonoma or a Viking Outlet and find the knife you want.
Please pick it up, feel it, find a cutting board and pretend to cut. Ask all the questions you can think of, then put it back on the shelf. Go home and go to one of the reputable online dealers because you'll save money by not thinking you need to have the fall line of Rachael Ray Ware.
Seriously, I purchase all my knives from online dealers, not only because it's more convenient than driving all over Tennessee and looking for a store that carries the particular knife I want but also because I can compare sites and prices and not pay any sales tax! I love the Internet --- Chef Alan Bickel.
onlinesources: Kitchen Knives & Cutlery
There are many sources for purchasing quality Kitchen Knives, including chef's, pairing, and boning knives. I suggest you check out your local department stores and kitchen supply shops.